What’s behind Germany’s hesitance over Leopard 2 battle tanks?
Germany’s chancellor, known to be careful and stubborn, is reluctant to greenlight tanks, but few understand his motives.
Berlin, Germany – Ukrainian soldiers in the field now use German Gepard anti-aircraft guns to defend their skies, German anti-tank weapons to pierce Russian armour, and German howitzers to shell enemy troops.
But the prize that Ukraine urgently seeks to regain territory before an expected Russian offensive this spring, the German-manufactured Leopard 2 battle tank, remains frustratingly out of reach.
Germany is one of the largest donors of military hardware to Ukraine, but over 11 months of war, Berlin has only stepped up deliveries under pressure and only after other allies made the first move.
If it were to provide the battle tanks, or even licence the re-export of Leopards from other countries’ arsenals, it would mark the first time that Berlin has led on weapons exports since the war began.
That step has so far proven too much for Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his allies in the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who insist on a careful course, which they say is in step with Germany’s NATO allies, and guided by a sceptical German public and a fear of escalating the war in Ukraine.
This hesitance has divided the SPD from its coalition partners and led to some international allies, especially in Eastern Europe, accusing Germany of shirking its responsibilities as a major European power.
“Modern, Western-built tanks have become a kind of a symbol for your readiness to support Ukraine, a symbol of your willingness to take risks, a symbol for your willingness to stand up against Russian aggression,” said Matthias Dembinski, a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt.
“If Germany continues to refuse to deliver tanks, the reputational damage will be significant. And if [it does], this might indeed be a symbolic break with the historical traditions of Germany, and especially the Social Democratic foreign security policy.”
Confusion simmers in Europe
Both of the SPD’s coalition partners, the Green Party and Free Democrats, support sending Leopards to Ukraine.
The final decision has to be approved by Scholz, who has built a reputation as a risk-averse and stubborn leader, and whose own party is less hawkish on Russia and more adverse to Germany flexing its military power.
Scholz defended Germany’s support for Ukraine during a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Sunday, and stressed the importance of working alongside the United States.
“As we’ve done in the past, always closely coordinating with all our friends and allies to discuss the particular situation, we will also proceed to do in the future,” he told reporters.
After days of confusion about whether a formal request for re-export had been submitted by any of the 14 countries that stock the Leopard 2, Germany confirmed on Tuesday that Poland had officially asked for the green light.
Earlier, Warsaw said that regardless of Berlin’s position, it would make its own decisions.
And German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has said that she would “not stand in the way” of any country that wished to send the tanks.
Meanwhile, speculation about Scholz is growing – from critics internationally, domestically, and even within his own coalition government.
“Does anyone understand him?” asked an editorial in the liberal newspaper Die Zeit, which compared the chancellery’s transparency, or lack thereof, to the Kremlin’s.
“He’s not coordinating the communication, and this creates this kind of cacophony in the end,” said Stefan Meister of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “And he, who is the key decision maker on any weapons supply? He’s not saying anything.”
SPD politics and the public mood
The SPD has long favoured practical relations with Russia and remains proud of its legacy of Ostpolitik, under which Chancellor Willy Brandt sought more open relations with East Germany and the Soviet Union.
“It was kind of a dogma of these Social Democrats for decades that peace in Europe can only be achieved with Russia, and so they invested a lot of political capital in this kind of détente policy,” Dembinski told Al Jazeera.
But the Ukraine war has forced a U-turn.
Last year Scholz pledged 100 billion euros ($109bn) to modernise Germany’s armed forces and vowed to take a more active role in shaping international security policy.
Progress has been slow, and an influential left-wing bloc has been less enthused about the project, despite party leadership promises that the goals will be met.
“It’s important to guarantee and organise Europe’s security against Russia,” SPD Co-Chair Lars Klingbeil said on Monday at the launch of a new strategy paper, which argued for the party to deliver on Scholz’s so-called “Zeitenwende”, or epochal change.
Yet the fear of Russia following through with its nuclear threats if Western states increase their military involvement is taken seriously by many in the SPD, including Scholz, who has raised the issue several times in recent months.
His spokesperson has said the chancellor has received letters and emails from the public, praising his approach of attempting to avoid a major escalation of the war.
Although Germany is one of the world’s largest arms exporters, the country has a conflicted view of itself as a military power. Pacifism is common, and many believe Germany should play a mediating, diplomatic role in international affairs.
There is also particular discomfort in sending weapons to regions of Eastern Europe that were invaded by Germany during World War II.
A DeutschlandTrend poll last week found that 46 percent of Germans support sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, 43 percent were opposed, and 11 percent were undecided.
Support was lowest among young people and those living in states that were formerly part of East Germany.
Another poll by Forsa found 54 percent supported allowing the re-export of Leopards from other countries to Ukraine, but 58 percent were against those tanks being used to recapture Crimea, which Russia has occupied since 2014.
”’More weapons will not bring peace’ is a formula that many in society would sign,” said Meister.
Despite the current impasse, the Ukrainian government has appeared confident that a breakthrough will be made, and that its troops will soon begin training to take German tanks into battle.
“I have no doubt that we will receive Leopards,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the BBC in an interview broadcast on Monday evening.
“The only question is when, and now we are focused on making it happen, sooner rather than later.”
Kuleba requested that all countries with Leopards who were willing to donate them submit a formal request to Germany as soon as possible.
“This is the move that will make the whole situation crystal clear and we will see where it takes Germany,” he added.
To the many Ukrainians in Germany, which hosts more than one million refugees who have fled the war, the wait for what appears to be the inevitable is nerve-wracking.
During the discussions at Ramstein Air Base on Friday, Vitsche, a Ukrainian activist group, staged a protest outside the chancellery in Berlin, calling for Scholz to immediately approve heavy tank deliveries.
“I’m very sure it’s going to come,” spokesperson Krista-Marija Läbe told Al Jazeera.
“In the meantime, more people will die, especially on the Ukrainian side. So I would like that the German government starts to act faster, starts to act with more assertiveness.”